By Rob Smith
Originally published on Advocate.com January 29 2014 4:16 AM ET
Editor's Note: An excerpt from Closets, Combat, and Coming Out:
The first two minutes of my military experience were a blur. No sooner had I gotten off the bus and retrieved my luggage, as directed, and stood in front of it, I made the mistake of glancing at the drill sergeants out of the side of my eye. They entered the area with their chest- jutting, tough-guy swagger. They seemed somehow larger than life: tall, angry, and terrifying. These big, angry-looking white men were the opposite of the warm and caring Corporal Garvin. They meant business, and first up on the agenda was to scare the living hell out of all of us.
"Don't fucking look at me, privates!" The first screamed.
"Look straight the fuck ahead!"
My frightened gaze inadvertently met the first drill sergeant's hardened and steely one. I'd never seen an overweight, yet muscular, middle-aged man move as lithely as he did. He leaped over the other recruits' bags and between their shoulders to move between the four rows of recruits and somehow place his face millimeters in front of mine in the blink of an eye.
I felt every eyeball in the room on me, the lone pepper spot in a sea of baldheads and clean- shaven white faces. I felt weak and exposed. The other recruits were doing their best to focus their attention directly forward and pretend not to notice the scene that was being performed by our new superior for their benefit.
Why couldn't it have been somebody else? I thought to myself. Why can't I ever just blend in?
The drill sergeant looked at me, studying me. Although I was trying to maintain my forward gaze. I realized it was bordering on the impossible, and decided on a split-second act of defiance. I looked him directly in the eyes, trying desperately to swallow the fear that enveloped me. Maybe this old bastard would respect me for it. Maybe he would think I'm not someone to be fucked with. Maybe I could get his old white ass to think I was some thug from the projects of Detroit instead of a solidly lower-middle class geek from Ohio with a two-parent family background that was like The Cosby Show. Well, maybe The Cosby Show if neither of the kids were Cliff's and he was a control freak who beat the shit out of Claire every once in a while.
I studied the drill sergeant while trying to maintain my gaze. His face was wide and heavy, as age had obviously crept in and started the inevitable decline in his looks. His face was heavily lined, his chin was weak and his cheeks sagged. The ridiculous drill sergeant cap, which most closely resembled an upside down bowl on top of a plate, placed an ominous shadow over his hollow eyes. As I looked into them, using every bit of my resolve to keep his gaze, I sensed a white-hot hatred that simmered below the surface. I engaged him there for what seemed like hours, giving him my brand new 'don't fuck with me' look. In my mind I thought of every rap video, every "hood" movie I'd ever seen with a young black guy killing someone, selling drugs or robbing someone, men who I was told by my thuggish cousins that I could never be like because I liked books instead of rap music, writing instead of sports.
The drill sergeant's eyes twinkled and a smile spread widely across his lips. Suddenly, I was afraid, and I felt a wave of fear unleash within me. I knew what was coming, which was possibly the worst thing that could come out right now. This had followed me since the sixth grade in Ohio, and it appears that it just hopped the flight down to the South. He looked directly at me with that'you're fucked'grin for a few moments more, then stepped back to make his pronouncement to the roomful of recruits that I would be spending the next six months with.
"What are you, a fucking faggot?" he said.
It was less of a question and more of a pronouncement, made loud enough so that everyone in the staging area could hear it. "This motherfucker was eyeballin' me because he's a fucking, faggot! Yeah, that's what you are, right?"
I flinched, taking two steps back and nearly falling backwards over the luggage that was stacked neatly behind me. I quickly regained my footing. That would not be a good way to start this process. I had to think quickly, to do something that would end this now.
"No, Drill Sergeant!"
The words came out of my mouth as unexpectedly as the vomit a few hours after I'd had my first shots of whiskey on my seventeenth birthday the past summer. His head whipped back around toward me. The other recruits and the officers staged in front of us were barely pretending not to pay attention any longer. This was quickly becoming quite the scene.
"What the fuck did you say?"
"No, Drill Sergeant, I'm not a faggot, Drill Sergeant!" I yelled.
"Then stop eyeballing me like you want to fuck me!" he said, pausing for a moment to look at the nametag stitched to my fatigues mid-sentence.
I looked up, and noticed that he had moved back into position close to my face. This time, he didn't yell, and his words sliced through my fun and games attitude like a scalpel through flesh. They were quiet, almost a whisper. These words were intended for me and nobody else.
"You ever eyeball me like that again and I will fucking end you, you motherfucking faggot," he spat.
I waited for a smile, for some sign of the showy badass he had put on for the company for the last five minutes, but there was none there. It was the real him, and he wasn't a fan of my fake bravado or the little stare down I had given him earlier. I was confused and looked down, but instinctively looked back up and straight ahead. Through my peripheral vision I could've sworn I saw the faintest smile on his face, but there was nothing happy about it. It was grim and fearsome, somehow devious. For the first time since I had come to Fort Benning, and the Army on a whim, I was afraid. Whatever he and his cohorts had in store for me and the other 124 recruits over the next six months wasn't going to be fun. Playtime was over.
ROB SMITH is an openly gay Iraq war veteran, journalist, lecturer, and LGBT activist. He served for 5 years in the United States Army as an Infantryman, earning the Army Commendation Medal and Combat Infantry Badge. His memoir, Closets, Combat and Coming Out (Blue Beacon Books) is available on Amazon.com and wherever LGBT books are sold. For more information on Smith, visit RobSmithOnline.com, or follow him on Twitter @RobSmithOnline.